A great horror movie makes more of an impression on the psyche than any other kind of film. Hell, even a bad horror flick can scar you for life. There’s a phrase that every seasoned horror fan loves to hear: “Have you ever seen . . . ?” For the next 31 days, John E. Meredith will unearth some of his personal favorites that fell through the cracks, that are not so obvious, the kind that might even sneak up on you while you’re trying to sleep. Clownhouse 1989, USA. Written and directed by Victor Salva. Starring Nathan Forrest Winters, Brian McHugh, Sam Rockwell, Michael Jerome West. “Midnight. A time for something awful. Something evil. Something real, or not? He was too scared to tell. It was that tingly feeling on the back of his neck . . . that told him, that told him . . . they were out there . . .” Okay, I have to get this out of the way. When this movie wrapped, the authorities learned that its director, Victor Salva, had been molesting the 12-year old lead (Nathan Forrest Winters) during the course of filming. Salva was eventually convicted on five counts of Sexual Misconduct With A Minor and served fifteen months of his three-year sentence. There were protests when the movie made its theatrical release, then again when it came out on video, which explains its relative obscurity today. After his release from prison, Salva went on to direct the freakin’ Disney-backed movie POWDER (1995), the one about the supernatural albino kid, and then the first-half-is-awesome-but-I’m-not-sure-I-needed-to-see-the-creature flick JEEPERS CREEPERS in 2001. While he is still doing movies, there’s enough stink on him that his career will probably never reach the heights of fellow sexually misconducting directors Roman Polanski or Woody Allen. Winters, meanwhile, has to live with this shit every day. Well, somehow I missed all of this molestation business until after I had already seen CLOWNHOUSE a couple times. The first was probably a few years after it was released, stumbling across it in a video store with a girlfriend who was less than happy with clowns. It spooked the hell out of her, all those painted smiles and big floppy clown feet. “You can’t see their real faces,” she said, echoing the words one of the boys would say in the movie. The second time was just a few years ago, seeing a copy of the movie on one of those bootleg tables at a horror convention. After many years apart, I had returned to the same girlfriend’s side, and figured, why not give the gift of clowns? Oh yeah, I’m one hopelessly romantic little devil. So we settled in, with her then 12-year old daughter, and got creeped out by some stupid clowns all over again. Yeah, the movie was less effective than my memory had painted it, but I had to concede that being unable to see the happily-painted psychopaths faces did kind of get to me more than it used to. Then I finally heard about what Salva had done and, let me tell you, this is a much scarier movie now. It was a dark and stormy night . . . yeah, that’s actually how it starts. Thunder, lightning, blowing winds, and a house in the country. Another loud crack of thunder, jolting music, and a corpse hanging from a tree swings into view. Okay, it’s actually a dummy that one of the jokester brothers put up, but still. In the house, there’s a shirtless kid (Winters) walking around in a strange glow and the flashing reflections from the raging storm. When he looks out the window upon the storm, a flyer with an illustration of a clown slaps up against the glass. The kid pees all over himself. His name is Casey, and if you think he’s got a thing about clowns, you get a honk on your big red nose. Casey has two older brothers. There’s the nice one, Geoffrey (Brian McHugh), and the oldest one, Randy (played by Sam Rockwell, in his movie debut). They are kinda like the BRADY BUNCH boys, if Greg had been a horny, flaming douche-bag. Their father isn’t around, and Mom leaves for the night to go see some out-of-town relatives. Right away, douche-bag Randy wants to drag his brothers, including the one who’s terrified of clowns, off to the visiting circus. Once there, he immediately sneaks off with a girlfriend, leaving Geoffrey and Casey alone for the big clown show in the main tent. Here comes the creepy clown trifecta of Cheezo, Bippo, and Dippo, seeking a volunteer from the audience. Obviously, they would want the kid who’s shaking all over and trying to hide. Freakin’ clowns. So Casey reacts the way any sane child should when faced with one of these guys: he runs out of the tent screaming. After the show, Cheezo, Bippo, and Dippo are sitting around backstage, smoking cigarettes and bitching about clown life, when the lights go out. One of them goes to take a peek outside. Before you can say ‘big top’, there’s a bunch of blood all over the tent and three escaped mental patients are smearing on the greasepaint. Cut to the three doing the crazy-clown amble down the unsuspecting streets of suburbia. Because they are crazy . . . and clowns . . . it’s not long before they’re hitting local houses, twisting bodies into fun balloon animal shapes, big shoes and oversized gloves flapping goofily. But being a creepy psychopathic clown is really only fun if you can find a kid who doesn’t like clowns . . . There are a lot of people who really dislike this movie, though I suspect their knowledge of behind-the-scenes could be coloring their view of it. Not that it’s the best horror flick, but it beats some of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13th sequels that were being churned out at the time. Horror movies about clowns are a little bit like horror movies about scarecrows; you think they’re going to be so scary and they very rarely are. There’s not much competition either, despite an abundance of monsters in honking red noses. You’ve got the television mini-series of Stephen King’s IT (1990), but it wasn’t very good beyond Tim Curry’s sewer-dwelling Pennywise. There’s the frightening sight of Florence Henderson as a drunken floozy in the otherwise non-horrific SHAKES THE CLOWN (1992), or Bill Murray as a sad-sack robber in clown feet (QUICK CHANGE, 1990). No one who’s seen KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988) will likely forget it. There are a few other notable appearances, like in THE FUNHOUSE (1981), POLTERGEIST (1982), and DEAD SILENCE (2007). This is not a long list, however, and CLOWNHOUSE might be one of the better ones just out of default. But it’s hard to watch CLOWNHOUSE now. The material hasn’t changed at all, but my perspective on it has. While I appreciate artistic endeavors above damn-near everything else, I also know the horrific things I’d want to do to anyone who ever hurt one of my children. There are numerous moments that might not have otherwise stood out – the brothers hanging out in their underwear, Randy hassling Casey about not having any pubes – that make me uncomfortable here. Despite the finely-built tension and some good performances, the fear and torment of Winters’ character feels too much like what the young actor might have actually gone through during the filming of the movie. You can almost feel the real-life drama bleeding out through the scenes in the film, as if there’s an element of Salva’s guilty conscience trying to reveal itself. When the circus clowns scare Casey from the tent, the nice brother goes after him. Geoffrey manages to calm Casey down, and it’s here when Casey explains why he’s so terrified of the clowns. “You never know what they really are,” he says. That might just be a little too much scary reality in my horror fiction. Editor’s Note: Clownhouse is out of print and difficult to find on DVD. However, if you’re interested in checking it out, it is available in full on YouTube – or you can watch it below. [youtube https://youtu.be/7tv6VoOYok4] Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.